My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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Who is your Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party (Part 1)?

With the release of Prime Video’s Rings of Power, I’ve been rereading a lot of Tolkien recently. Tolkien was the writer who first sparked my interest in writing, and hanging out in Arda, whether in the pages of his books or through the portal of an onscreen adaptation, always leaves me wiser and happier than I was before. Revisiting Middle Earth has also reminded me of one of the great debates I used to have with my nerdy friends (such as they were) in my youth: If you had to pick the ultimate fantasy traveling party to go on a magic-filled quest, who would you include?

A couple of ground rules:

  1. For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that you are building your party to go on a traditional fantasy quest, like the one described in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Your quest will consist of an epic, episodic adventure, involve a magical object, feature a mentor, etc. A nefarious, evil entity will try to thwart you, and you will probably lose at least one companion along the way. There will be magic. There will be monsters. Your hero will change over the course of the journey. The FATE OF THE WORLD will be at stake.
  2. For the purpose of this exercise, your party will consist of nine. Why nine? First, because we need an equal number for the sake of comparison and evaluation. If every party is the same size, the game is fair. Why nine specifically? Any number would, technically, do, but we’ll go with nine in honor of the nine walkers in the Lord of the Rings. These things tend to be traditional.
  3. The members of your traveling party MUST originate in a fantasy novel or series of novels. Graphic novels are ok for the purpose of this exercise; TV shows and movies are not (use the books upon which they were based).
  4. You may only choose one character from each book or series. Choose wisely. If you choose Gandalf, you will not be able to also include Samwise Gamgee. If you choose Hermione, no Harry Potter, etc.
  5. We’re using traditional high fantasy as our setting. Magic is ok; technology is not.
  6. Consider the different archetypes traditionally found on a fantasy quest. You need not use all of them, but they exist for a reason. A party of Gandalf, Ged Sparrowhawk, Dumbledore, etc, might seem really powerful and cool, but there is a reason why we don’t see many such parties in fantasy novels. Who will play the role of the mentor? The hero? The muscle? Which characters will be able to use magic? Which will not?

I will post my answer next week in this space. Truthfully, the members of my party will likely change many times between now and then. In the meantime, please put yours in the comments. I might even include some in next week’s blog. I look forward to hearing your ideas.

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In Honor of Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie signing a book

Like everyone else, I am shocked and appalled by what happened to Salman Rushdie this past week. Not only is Rushdie one of the greatest living authors, he is also a champion of free speech and a model of principled bravery in the face of real danger. He is also one of my favorite writers.

If you only know Rushdie from his most famous and controversial work, The Satanic Verses, you should check out some of his other work as well. The booker-winning Midnight’s Children is, deservedly, his most highly regarded novel (and probably the right place to start if you are a Rushdie novice), but my favorite is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which masquerades as a children’s fantasy book, but is actually about the dangers of censorship.

I’ve also learned a lot as a writer from Rushdie, who, in his melding of Eastern and Western traditions, often breaks a lot of so-called “rules” of writing. Here is a blog I wrote about his used of adverbs back in 2021.

Blog post on Rushdie and Adverbs

Please join me in wishing Rushdie a speedy recovery. Get well soon.

Process and Perfection in Matisse’s Red Studio

Last week, I saw the Matisse’s Red Studio exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features the painting after which it is named, but also focusses on the artist’s other works, especially those featured in the Red Studio painting. It is a really good exhibition and I enjoyed it immensely as an art lover. I also learned a lot about Matisse’s creative process, and as I often do when examining another creative’s method, found things I can incorporate into my own writing process.

The MOMA’s gallery cards are exceptional. Instead of just listing the name of the piece, the artist, and the medium like most museum’s do, the labels which accompany the art at the MOMA often include full paragraphs about the work which contextualize the piece and give some insight into both the importance of the work and, when known, the artist’s process or artistic vision.

One can learn a lot by reading the cards. For example, I learned that not only was Matisse a tinkerer, he often left vestiges of the original, or drafting, stages of his work in the final piece when he revised. Take, for example, this painting.

The position of the leg was obviously changed, which can be seen in the extraneous line near the lower half of the extended leg. There is also evidence that Matisse tinkered with the position of the figure’s arm (on the same side of the body), which he attempted to disguise in the shadows.

Here is the same painting with the relevant areas highlighted.

In many of the other paintings, the viewer can see pencil lines, presumably from the sketches he made on the canvass before he started to paint. They are not noticeable at the distance from which one usually photographs a painting, but up close, you can see them clearly. Here is an example:

What struck me most about these pieces was not that Matisse revised so much as part of his process. The world of the writer–and I assume the artist as well–is oversaturated with advice about revising one’s work. Revision is part of the process and it is par for the course. Rather, what stood out to me was that these vestiges remained in the final piece.

Many writers, many artists, many creative people in general, will work on their pieces in a futile pursuit of perfection. I have been guilty of doing so myself, working on a piece right up until the deadline, trying to make it as perfect as possible before submitting it for publication. I make sure to give myself deadlines, to seek out open call with hard deadlines, and rarely self-publish because I often get in my own head about revision.

There is an old saw in the creative world, “Finished, not perfect,” and like most oft-repeated advice it has become cliché and, in doing so, has lost much of its impact. It’s something people say, post about on social media, and hang up on posters in their classroom, and then ignore when it comes to their own practice. Seeing the Matisse pieces on the wall–and reading the gallery cards–is much, much more impactful.

Because, here’s the thing: No one notices the mistakes when looking at the paintings on the wall. Those who did not take the time to read the gallery cards, most likely, did not notice them at all. I certainly did not until I after the labels pointed them out to me. As someone who sees every mistake in everything I write, even–and especially–after its published, there’s a powerful lesson in that.

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On Banned Books, Privilege, and Stephen King’s Poor Choice of Words

In response to the recent appalling spate of book banning, many of my friends and fellow writers have posted the following meme which based on a quote by Stephen King:

While their, and King’s, motivations for posting this quote are noble, I find the content of said quote unhelpful, dangerous, and misinformed. It isn’t often one can say this, but in this statement, King chose his words poorly.

While I am very much in favor of encouraging kids to read banned books, the assumptions underlying King’s advice reveal a gross misunderstanding of the on-the-ground realities for many students and assume privilege as well.

I’m willing, for now, to leave aside the opening gambit which say King “is never much disturbed” as a poorly-chosen rhetorical gambit. The real issue is the false dichotomy placing. Seeking out and reading banned books in direct opposition to being angry and protesting. One must fight against book bans because the alternative which King presents does not address the problem for most kids. Consider the third paragraph:

King advises students not to protest or sign petitions, but “instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or the local book store and get whatever it is that they banned.”

I’m going to begin with the end of that sentence: the assumption that a kid has enough money to buy a book, let alone the many that are likely banned by their district reveals King’s economic privilege and assumes the same of the students. I don’t know the demographics of the district where King taught way back when, but I have been a New York City public school teacher since 2007, and most of the inner-city kids whom I teach do not have extra cash to spend at book stores.

Moreover, the assumption that there is a local book store also indicates a certain type of community. Not every town has a book store, many do not have one within walking distance, and, even in suburban communities, the closest bookstore may be many miles away.

Let’s move on to the library. First off, books are being banned from libraries as well. While librarians generally try to fight the good fight, municipalities often will threaten to pull funding if the library if doesn’t pull certain books from the shelf, effectively banning those books.

But even if the banned books are available at the library, there are a number of other issues with King’s advice. First, in order for the advice to work, every kid in the class would need to borrow the book from the library. Let’s assume a class of 25 (I’ve had 34 kids in a class in the bast majority of classes I’ve taught, but let’s take 25 just for the example). Is a local library going to inventory 25 copies of Maus? Most likely, not. If a school has four sections, each with 25 kids, the library would need to carry 100 copies for each kids to have access to a copy so they could read it. I’ve taught in schools with graduating classes ranging from 100 to 900+. Eventually, the numbers get ridiculous. Let’s say that each kid borrowed the book for 2 weeks. How many books do we expect a library to carry? How long would it take for every student to read each banned book?

Not every kid would take the initiative to read the book, you might say—and you’d be right—which presents another issue with King’s argument. Only the kids with the interest and initiative to go to the library and read the banned books would read them. Most would not. To believe otherwise is idealistic nonsense. If Mr. King would think back to his days as a teacher, surely he would know this.

With the amount of ignorance which pervades our culture, and the rate at which the ignorant vote and even hold powerful positions, the dangers of the ignorance which arises from not reading banned books is great, indeed. We should be fighting against ignorance even if the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, like the Aesir against Ragnarok, rather than acquiescing to it.

“Ah,”you might say, “ but do all the kids in a class where a book is assigned read it?” The answer is certainly not. But, just as certainly, a greater percentage of them will than if the book was not assigned. Moreover, every student who attends class will have some exposure to the book, as well as its themes, issues, and historical contexts through the class discussions. Something, in this case, is better than nothing.

There is also a privilege issue with the library argument. In my district in New York City, which has one of the largest and most well-funded public library systems in the country, the public libraries close around 6pm. In the town in which I live, the library is only open in the evening twice a week, never past 7pm, and never on the weekend. Many of my students have after-school jobs which they use to help their parents pay the rent. Many take care of their siblings while their parents are at work as well. These students do not have the luxury of first researching, and second going to the public library to take out banned books on a regular basis. Maybe students in the district where King taught could, but I’m willing to bet that there are more students across the country who find themselves in a similar situation to the students whom I teach.

In addition, as students get older, they participate in after school activities. Let’s say a child is a member of a basketball team. Often, practices and road games end well after the public library would be closed. We can tell kids to pick books over their teams, but does anyone think the majority will make that choice?

For younger children—and children’s books are being as well—the problem is even greater. How are young children supposed to get to the book store or library? Who is taking them there? Surely not the very adults who populate the school boards that are banning books.

One last thing: My father was kicked out of his house for reading Catcher in the Rye. He happened to have a life situation and live in a community where he could spend the night elsewhere. Many kids do not. I wonder where the kids I teach would go if they were kicked out of their houses. Would they feel safe spending the night somewhere else even if they could obtain the book from the local library or book store? I know for a fact that many of them would not.

Returning to that opening gambit, there is no reason to place seeking out books in opposition to being angry and pursuing other means. I might, for example advise a fellow teacher who teaches in a district where Maus was banned to try to teach Joe Kubert’s Yossel, another graphic novel about the Holocaust. Leaving aside the issues of funding and acquiring the books this might be a way to stay ahead of the censors and teach a similar book. I would never advise them, however, to give up their fight to keep teaching Maus, not to protest the decision, or not to be angry or disturbed. I would, in fact, encourage that teacher to fight on multiple fronts. Similarly, while I might advise students to seek out the banned book wherever they could, I would never tell them not to be angry, not to fight, not to protest, etc. Had King advised his students in that manner, or used his immense platform to do so, I would not have a problem with his advise. The realities of how his advise would play out (as detailed above) makes his rhetorical ploy. One off as the kind of privileged indifference that people like Martin Luther King and Eli Wiesel warned against.

I agree with King’s final statement. Read banned books. Find out what “they” don’t want you to know, but be mad that those books are banned. Protest, carry signs, raise a ruckus. Even if you’re in the position where you can follow King’s advice. Fight like hell for those who don’t share your privilege. As another famous writer recently posted,

If that’s not a reason to get angry, I don’t know what is.